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Hiram Powers’ Technique: The Art of Seizing a Likeness in Marble
The Art of Seizing a Likeness in Marble

by Rebecca Reynolds

Hiram Powers’ Technique: The Art of Seizing a Likeness in Marble
Fig. 1: Judge Alphonso Taft (1810-1891). Modeled August 1869. Original plaster. H. 24-3/8, W. 16-1/8, D. 11-1/8 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. Museum purchase in memory of Ralph Cross Johnson, 1968.155.76.

Hiram Powers (1805-1873) was one of the most celebrated American sculptors of the nineteenth century. His full-length nude marble statue The Greek Slave (1844), one of his best-known works, earned him international acclaim. A retrospective exhibition of Powers' work at the Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, hopes to restore attention to the work of this "American Michelangelo." The exhibition, which focuses on his Cincinnati connections, represented in part by portraits he executed of its citizens, offers a rare opportunity to study his portraiture over the course of his career: from his first essays in wax to marble busts done mid-career and some of the last portraits to be produced by his studio.

Hiram Powers was born in Woodstock, Vermont. He and his family moved to Cincinnati when he was a boy and he counted the city as his hometown. It was in Cincinnati that his native talent at sculpture was first recognized and nurtured. In part through the generous support of the Queen City's cultural leaders, Powers was able to also spend several years producing sculpture for clients in Washington D.C. and Boston; he move to Florence in 1837 with his wife and young family. In Italy he was able to use the finest statuary marble in the world and had ample access to skilled assistants. There he mastered his craft and continued to work for many Cincinnati patrons.

Hiram Powers’ Technique: The Art of Seizing a Likeness in Marble
Fig. 2: Alphonso Taft (18101891). Modeled August 1869, carved 1869-1870. Marble. H. 24, W. 17, D. 10-3/4 in. Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, OH, 1931.370. Photography by Tony Walsh.

Powers' remarkable talent in portraiture was obvious from the beginning; indeed, it was his earliest pieces that earned him distinction as one of the greatest portrait artists of all time. Surprisingly, some pieces produced at the end of his life lack the extraordinary life-like quality evident in his earliest work (Fig. 5). Does this reflect the absence of Powers' hand on the stone (were his assistants left to carry out most of the work?), or was it the nature of the marble from which some later portraits were cut? The probable answer lies in a comparison of busts executed in varying kinds of stone and in an understanding of Powers' sculptural process and the workings of his shop.

Following traditional shop practices, Powers began a portrait with an iron armature or "skeleton" on which he built up wet clay to approximate the size and shape of the head. Ideally, he then developed his sitters' features over a period of six to eight days in sittings of two to three hours each. When his sitters could not accommodate him in this way, he had to rely on carefully taken measurements to finish the portrait. Once the clay model was perfected, plaster craftsmen made a mold over the clay from which they cast a plaster working model. Powers refined the surface of the plaster with tools he had invented for this purpose.

Hiram Powers’ Technique: The Art of Seizing a Likeness in Marble
Fig. 3: Alma Hammond L'Hommedieu (1813-1890). Modeled 1871. Original plaster and working model. H. 23-7/8, W. 18-3/8, D. 10-3/8 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. Museum purchase in memory of Ralph Cross Johnson, 1968.155.38.

The 1869 plaster bust of Alphonso Taft (Fig. 1) still retains the strategically placed pencil marks made by Powers' assistants as they employed a pointing machine to identify reference spots on the plaster before carving. The plaster provides a valuable comparison with the finished marble. In a letter to Taft, Powers described the difference between the smooth marble and the rougher surface of the plaster. The plaster, Powers explained, revealed "the touches of modeling on it" that some people prefer.1 Powers clearly saw the value in both the marble and the plaster, but he was especially satisfied with the Taft marble (Fig. 2), noting that the block was "a perfect piece of marble, and of a fine complexion."2 The marble used — known as "statuario" because it is most suitable for carving statues — probably came from either the quarry at Cararra or nearby Seravezza, from which Powers always tried to get his stone after first visiting Seravezza in 1841.

Powers always carefully selected the stone for each sculpture and his workmen blocked out its rough form with heavy mallets, pointed chisels, and claw chisels while using the pointing machine to establish the depths to which they should carve the stone. Skilled artisans would use flat chisels to smooth out the surface to just a fraction higher on the stone than on the plaster model. Specialists in hair and drapery then completed those parts of the figure, and Powers' master carvers finished the piece with rasps and files, and tools that Powers had designed for this purpose, among them a roller to simulate the porosity of flesh. Heavily dependent on his assistants, he boasted that he had trained his craftsmen until "they were like instruments in his hands." Powers typically put the finishing touches on a portrait.

Hiram Powers’ Technique: The Art of Seizing a Likeness in Marble
Fig. 4: Elizabeth Gibson Powers (1813-1892). Plaster. Modeled about 1859, cast and finished after 1859. H. 26-1/4, W. 18-7/8, D 9-7/8 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. Museum purchase in memory of Ralph Cross Johnson, 1968.155.30.

The plaster busts of his wife, Elizabeth Powers (Fig. 4), and Alma Hammond L'Hommedieu (Fig. 3) offer insight into Powers' working methods. Despite the highly individualized character of the L'Hommedieu portrait, her head is attached to a stock bodice. Powers typically modeled just the head of his subject in clay; the form of the shoulders and chest usually were added when it was cast in plaster. Powers' carvers were masters at executing marble and the artist needed only to suggest the style of the clothing in his plaster models. Most of Powers' sitters wished to be represented in stylish dress, but modest attire was more appropriate for Mrs. Powers, mother of his nine children, and especially Mrs. L'Hommedieu, who was memorialized as "an earnest Christian and devoted wife and mother."3

The 1842 bust of Judge Jacob Burnet (Fig. 5) is among Powers' finest and most moving portraits. A masterpiece of naturalism, this likeness was sensitively modeled from life in Cincinnati and later carved in Florence. Since this was to be one of the first marble portraits he sent home to Cincinnati, Powers devoted his personal attention to it. This exquisite bust captures the character of the sitter, known for his grace, wisdom, and commanding presence. Burnet's bust is most often cited in period references that describe Powers as unequalled in his portraiture — "It seems humanity turned to stone" was one enthusiast's description of it.

Hiram Powers’ Technique: The Art of Seizing a Likeness in Marble
Fig. 5: Judge Jacob Burnet (1770-1853). Modeled August 1837, carved 1842. Marble. H. 20, W. 14-1/2, D. 12 in. University of Cincinnati Fine Arts Collection. Gift of Duncan Burnet, 1949.3. Photography by Jay Yocis, ©2007 University of Cincinnati.

Another of Powers' masterpieces is his romantic, yet unsentimental portrait of statesman Robert Todd Lytle with tousled hair and an intensely thoughtful expression (Fig. 6). Acquaintances from Cincinnati, Powers and Lytle became close friends when both were working in Washington, D.C., in 1835, the year Lytle sat for this portrait. However, it was not a commission and the plaster was not finished until 1849, ten years after Lytle's premature death from tuberculosis, when Lytle's family ordered two marble copies of the original plaster. Powers considered Lytle like a brother to him, and bestowed extra care on the commission, requesting only a fee of $300 to cover his materials and labor. The bust seen in figure 6 was executed for Lytle's son, William H. Lytle. Powers apologized for the second bust, ordered by Lytle's brother, Edward H. Lytle. In a letter written to William Lytle in 1851, Powers explained that the marble begun for his uncle Edward had revealed itself to be "spotted" once the layer of the finished surface was approached. Because of his perfectionism, Powers was frequently delayed in completing a commission or took a loss on a commission because he felt that the marble had to be thrown away when a blemish or other problem surfaced during the carving.

Hiram Powers’ Technique: The Art of Seizing a Likeness in Marble
Fig. 6: Robert Todd Lytle (1804-1839). Modeled 1835 and 1849, carved 1850. Marble. H. 22, W. 16-1/2, D. 8-3/4 in. Private Collection. Photography by Tony Walsh.

The quality of the marble helped to determine a portrait. With its fine-lined wrinkles and distinctive mole, the 1870 bust of Alice Key Pendleton (Fig. 7) is no doubt a sensitive and true likeness, but it lacks soul and does not readily suggest the subject's personality — characteristics of Powers' best portraiture. Perhaps, as for her husband's bust, which Powers began but did not complete modeling, Mrs. Pendleton did not provide Powers with the ideal number of sittings, or more likely, perhaps it is due to the heightened involvement Powers' workmen. In April 1870, Powers suffered a head injury and his son, Preston, who had been acting as his father's secretary, temporarily assumed the management of the shop. (Two of Powers' three surviving sons would pursue sculpture after their father's death, but neither possessed his exemplary work ethic and extraordinary skill at sculpture.) At the time of the Pendleton commission there was a backlog of portrait busts, so master craftsman Remigio Peschi, was given the task of carving the marble for Alice Key Pendleton's portrait. Peschi likely chose to work with the kind of marble he preferred, a sparkly Cararra marble popular among neoclassical sculptors for its high translucency and often seen in Powers' ideal portraits, which Peschi almost exclusively worked on. Since the light penetrates this marble, it doesn't create a strong contrast between the planes of its surface, resulting in a soft focus. Had he used a more opaque marble, the well-defined features of Mrs. Pendleton's portrait would have shown up as stronger contrasts of light and dark and she would have had a stronger presence.

LEFT: Fig. 7: Alice Key Pendleton (1823-1886), 1870. Marble. H. 26, W. 17-1/4, D. 12-5/8 in. Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Gift of James Francis Brice, 36.6.

RIGHT: Fig. 8:
David Sinton (1808-1900). Modeled 1870, carved 1872-1873. Marble. H. 23-5/8, W. 16-1/2, D. 9-7/8 in. Taft Museum of Art, 1931.371. Photography by Tony Walsh.

Hiram Powers’ Technique: The Art of Seizing a Likeness in Marble
Fig. 9: Anna B. Sinton (1850-1931). Modeled 1870, carved 1872. Marble. H. 26-5/8, W. 18-1/8, D. 11 in. (with socle). Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, OH, 1931.372. Photography by Tony Walsh.

A very different effect was achieved in the portraits of David Sinton (Fig. 8) and his daughter Anna B. Sinton (Taft ) (Fig. 9), who donated her art collection to Cincinnati and established her home in what is now the Taft Museum of Art. While the Sinton portraits are magnificent when compared to the work of many other artists, they do not reach the high standard that Powers set for himself and more often than not achieved. The stone that Powers' master portrait carver Antonio Ambuchi used to carve these busts is called "bianco p." Although not considered as fine as "statuario," its attractions are its uniformity of color, lack of veining, and its very fine grain, which gives it a resemblance to porcelain; moreover, it weathers well outdoors. A warm white color is the most desirable, but it can also have a cool, bluish tint as seen in the Sinton portraits, which are rendered somewhat cold and lifeless when compared with Powers' other portraits. This relative failing in these otherwise beautifully modeled portraits lies in Powers' inability to properly oversee and finish all of the production of his studio by the time these portraits were commissioned in 1870 and executed during the following three years. (Powers died on June 27, 1873, and is buried along with three of his children in the "English" cemetery in Florence.) It also reveals the importance of Powers' creative control over his assistants and his role in selecting the best blocks of stone to create portraits that transcend the nature of the material to become "living marble."

Hiram Powers: Genius in Marble is at the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, Ohio, through August 12, 2007 and is accompanied by an exhibition catalogue. For more information call 513.241.0343, or visit www.taftmuseum.org.

Rebecca Reynolds is an independent curator specializing in American sculpture and the co-curator of Hiram Powers: Genius in Marble. She thanks sculptors David Gesualdi and Fred X. Brownstein for generously sharing their knowledge about the nature of various marbles and the carver's craft.

1. Hiram Powers to Alphonso Taft, May 1, 1870, Hiram Powers Family Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, (hereafter referred to as AAA), Roll 818.

2. Hiram Powers to Alphonso Taft, March 10, 1870, AAA, Roll 818.

3. Commercial Gazette Obituary, 10 July 1890. The author thanks Anne Shepherd for providing this reference.

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